Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Sun, Sand, and Stars
This weekend I climbed 10 stars of sandstone (or maybe 9), and far too much of it in the sun. Our objective was to climb a couple of the best multi-pitch free climbs in the world. The result was good training. And that’s cool with me.
Mick and I decided to use the longest weekend of the year to attempt the Rainbow Wall. The plumb line up the north face of Red Rock’s most impressive formation has been called the best route in the world. Praise across the web could not have been higher. Comments included it being “the pinnacle of my climbing career, makes Cloud Tower and Levitation 29 (two very famous long free climbs) seem like warm-ups, most amazing route I’ve ever done,” and so on. We left Salt Lake’s unseasonably-wet spring and headed south towards a perfect weather forecast.
Passing Kolob Canyon I recited the tale of Sand, Sand, and Sand. My friends Kevin Thaw and Scott Cosgrove, fresh off ticking the hardest aid climbs on El Cap’s perfect granite, decided to put their stamp on Zion. Their experience on the soft sandstone was less than stellar. After 5 days of “sand in our hair, sand in our sleeping bags, sand in our food…” they bailed one pitch from the summit in disgust. They called their route, Sand, Sand, and Sand in a parody of what was supposed to be the ultra classic in the canyon, Wind, Sand, and Stars. I had no idea our weekend would have a similar result.
Saturday morning we headed to Snow Canyon to try The Richness of it All, a four pitch “5-star” route. This had also received comments such as “the best multi-pitch route I’ve ever done.” We figured it’d be a perfect warm-up for the Rainbow. After driving ‘til the wee hours, we’d woken up late but still had time to squeeze it in before the afternoon sun would turn the wall into a microwave.
The first two pitches were nice. The rock was a tad soft, and often hollow, but the protection was fine and the climbing excellent. After dispensing the crux we had two 5.11 pitches to the summit. The first followed “beautiful wind-sculpted features” according to the guide. This, I suppose, was true. However these features tended to be hollow so the climbing had to be delicate. Near the top of the pitch my luck ran out as the sculpted features were gone and all I was left with was a series of sandy holes. I fell a few times trying to figure it out, blowing my onsight, and with the sun coming didn’t have time to re-do it. I hoped Mick would have better luck but he didn’t. Despite its meager rating, we both felt this pitch in its current condition was much harder than the crux. Climbable, for sure, but on soft sandy rock that was less than inspiring.
We dispensed with the last “amazing” pitch just as the sun came around. It was pretty good, but not nearly as hard or great as advertised. Mick’s comment as we arrived back to the car was “that was disappointing. I wouldn’t do it again.” No worries. We had bigger fish to fry. Little did we know we were the ones about to be fried.
We drove south and by late afternoon were nestled in a small cave at the base of the Rainbow Wall. Our plan was to get up at first light, have a leisurely breakfast, and warm-up as we waiting for the wall to go into the shade. We had heard to expect this by around 9am.
The next morning it wasn’t too hot in the sun so we started climbing. 10 pitches later we were still waiting for shade. We’d been sandbagged by our beta, which told us it was impossible to see the Red Dihedral in the sun unless you slept on Over the Rainbow Ledge. But here we were, melting on the ledge below the route’s crux, and wondering what happened to the shade that should have been on us hours ago.
While we waited it came up that neither of us was particularly impressed with the quality of the climbing. It was okay. It has some good pitches, for sure. But it also had a lot of hollow sandy rock. It was a great line, had a great position overlooking Las Vegas, but pitch by pitch it wasn’t great climbing. It was also hot. Really hot. Maybe it was a better route when it “never sees the sun.”
Finally the shade hit and we were off. However, our feet, swollen by our black boot rubber’s contact with the rock, were killing us. Still, I was somewhat hopeful as I ascended towards the routes crux. At least until I saw the move.
Not being too flexible, stemming is not my favorite thing to do in climbing. This crux was an absolutely brutal stem move up an overhanging corner on miniscule footholds with nothing at all for the hands. Mick, a much better stemmer than I, seemed to have a better chance so I lowered and let him have a shot. No go. And not even close.
Now maybe we could have done this in proper conditions. It’s not my kind of move, so I can’t really say. But rubber loses strength in the heat and, with our feet in their current condition, power-stemming on the tiniest of rugosities was just not in our bag of tricks. Mick pulled through and climbed the rest of the pitch. I followed, not able to sort the move, even on top rope.
After our failure, we couldn't be bothered to do the final couple of pitches. We weren't here force our way to the summit but to free the route. Nature had beaten us, so down we went.
Except for our feet, and a little sunburn, we felt pretty good. We figured if we hurried down we could make the six hour drive home in time for a decent sleep. From the base of the wall, we made it back to our car in about 1:15, sore feet and all. Getting up had probably taken 1:45. The guidebook said to plan 4 to 8 hours for the approach, and one of the trip reports we found said to plan 6 to 10 hours. On the descent we talked about whether this info was a joke, and then whether maybe all of the hyperbole surrounding the Rainbow Wall was a joke. It’s a good route, for sure. But a far cry from the best we’ve been on. It wasn’t even our favorite route in Red Rocks.
My wife often makes fun of me because I do things for “training” that are objectives to most people. The routes I do are training. My rides and runs, no matter how long, are always just referred to as training. I spy a long line up a mountain and say, “look at that. It would be great training!” I guess I don’t care that much about ticking off what most call accomplishments. I like getting outside, testing my body, and feeling tired enough to earn my beer at the end of the day. Mick is similar, which is probably why we climb together. What started as an objective was now just training and that was fine by us. As we arrived at the car, Mick raised a lukewarm homebrew and made a toast, “good exercise weekend.”
pics, bottome to top: a peregrine on over the rainbow ledge who was making little noises that, we're sure, was laughter directed at us; mick, a tad sweaty, and happy to see shade on the way 'if only it'd move a little quicker'; me on the first pitch. devious climbing, exacerbated by warmth; view of vegas from our bivy; mick enjoys a mug of wine in our cave; mick dealing with what once were, apparently, beautiful, sculpted features; me on the "crux" of the richness of it all; even hemlock's broiled steak couldn't save our day. now maybe if we had some wild turkey on the rocks to wash it down..."